Steven Ehrlich is founding partner of Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects, winner of the 2015 National AIA Firm Award and one of Ocean Home’s Top 50 Coastal Architects of 2016. Takashi Yanai directs the firm’s residential studio. Their new book Ehrlich / Yanai Houses publishes in 2018.


When and why did you become an architect?

Ehrlich: When I was a young boy and teenager, I loved to build forts and tree houses. Then, at 12 years old, I designed “the solar home” for a seventh grade science project, winning at the New Jersey State Science Fair. My dad was a mechanical engineer and inventor. When he asked an architect friend of his what advice he had for his son who wanted to be an architect, the friend responded ironically: “Break his fingers.” I just knew – as I still do – that being an architect would be my life’s work.


You worked for six years in Africa. How did this experience influence your approach to design?

Ehrlich: Living and working in Africa led me to study vernacular “architecture without architects” and how unique constraints of site, climate and culture lead to living lightly on the land. I became fascinated with concepts like courtyards and indoor/outdoor living, which are themes still present in our work today. The sustainable wisdom of indigenous builders, and how they construct in harmony with their environments, still inspires me today.


What makes a great coastal home?

Ehrlich: When we design, we often talk about how we “listen to people and place.” A great coastal home will graciously respond to its setting. Living on the coast is a privilege for those who can do it. Capturing views, embracing the breeze, the sounds and smells, all have roles to play in this glorious dance with the manmade in harmony with nature.


So much architectural focus is on America’s East Coast. Do you believe the axis is about to change?

Yanai: There’s definitely a shift going on. California has always been a place for architects to experiment, especially in residential architecture, because it’s at the confluence of East and West. There’s always been an influence from the openness of the architecture of Japan, but now we’re seeing riffs from places like Bali and other parts of the Asia-Pacific region. It’s a mashup of inspirations appropriate to the Pacific Century.


What major trends are you seeing in coastal architecture?

Yanai: Coastal architecture is all about the magnificent views, about opening the interior environments of a home to the great outdoors. We design houses that have entire walls of glass that pocket away and disappear to create essentially covered outdoor rooms. The architecture practically invites the Pacific Ocean inside.


What makes a great coastal architect?

Yanai: The same thing that makes a great architect anywhere: the ability and openness to create architecture that lets people connect with place. On the West Coast, this means taking full advantage of our world’s greatest climate, beautiful sunsets and the luxury of being able to embrace life outdoors.